Hopefully, Andrew Cuomo already has a copy of The Man Who Saved New York: Hugh Carey and the Great Fiscal Crisis of 1975, the new biography by former state senator Seymour Lachman and ex-Newsday reporter Rob Polner, the same team that delivered insider tales of Albany fixers in Three Men in a Room. Cuomo and his father have a lot of ancient history with Carey, governor from 1974 to 1982, not all of it good. But if he can put those old grudges aside, the likely future governor will appreciate this dramatic saga of what it’s like to be a brand new occupant of the executive mansion who opens the cabinets to find they’ve been stripped bare.
Lesson One in the book is a governor must be willing to hear bad news: The book describes how Carey was first told that the city was spiraling into fiscal catastrophe. His reaction to this news from top budget aide Peter Goldmark? He threw him out of his office. Goldmark tells the story: “Carey exploded and said, ‘Don’t you know the first rule of politics of New York State: the governor does not interfere in the mayor’s governance of his own city.'”
Fortunately Goldmark kept pestering. The gov soon calmed down and began lining up allies to help him push then Mayor Abe Beame to deal with the crisis. One such partner was former judge Simon Rifkind, an old-fashioned, no-nonsense lawyer. The book tells the tale of an information-gathering visit to City Hall by Carey and Rifkind. They sat with Beame’s top deputy, James Cavanagh who tried to tell them how the budget worked.
Rifkind interrupted to ask, “Where are the books?” Cavanagh tried to explain that things were more complicated than that, miming taking a dollar from one pocket and depositing in another. “Show us the books,” Rifkind insisted.
The deputy said that wasn’t possible. “We can’t issue any books right now.”
“My God, my good man,” said the shocked judge. “You don’t have any books!”
Not only is it wonderful to think that people once really talked that way, the book also vividly describes the culture clash between Carey’s imported private sector financial advisors and the rest of New York. One taste of this emerged when Felix Rohatyn of Lazard Freres sat through marathon bargaining sessions with municipal union leaders at the old Americana Hotel. “When Rohatyn spied one of the union leaders wearing a sidearm, he asked, ‘Is this the way you guys always do business?'”
There’s a still unresolved debate about what might have happened if the city had defaulted on its billions in bank-held bonds back then, rather than submitting to radical economic restructuring along lines that investors like Rohatyn found acceptable, such as tuition hikes, hospital closings, and layoffs. But Rohatyn insisted that such a default meant slow death, and Carey agreed. At one press conference, the financial wizard got the media’s attention: Municipal bankruptcy, he said, was “like stepping into a tepid bath and slashing your wrists — you might not feel yourself dying, but that’s what would happen.”
Goldmark, who emerges from the book as a brilliant — and still insufficiently heralded — public thinker, also saw the crisis in life and death terms. “The negotiations over the city’s fate, with billions of dollars of private and public capital at stake, were ‘a game of Pass The Pistol,'” he said.
One of the reasons for the book is to correct the last lingering images of Carey in the public imagination, when his hair began turning shades of orange, and after his short, tempestuous second marriage to a rich Greek shipping heiress. Polner and Lachman remind us that he was also the ex-GI who stuck to his anti-death penalty position — a decision he reached after helping to liberate Nazi death camps in Europe — even though it almost spiked his political career. Cuomo is also militantly opposed to the death penalty, but — amazingly — no one cares about that one anymore. All anyone wants to know is: Are you for, or against, that damn mosque? Wonder how Hugh Carey would’ve handled that one.